Discussing Smart Growth With Cheryl Cort
Transit-Oriented Development at Ballston Metro Station in Arlington. Photo by faceless b.

Transit-Oriented Development at Ballston Metro Station in Arlington. Photo by faceless b.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth is one of the preeminent activist organizations dedicated to sustainable transportation and smart land use policies in the D.C. area. Over the last ten years, the Coalition has fought for inclusionary zoning in D.C., for transit-oriented development around Metro stations across the region, for building a high-quality Purple Line and a smart growth Tyson’s Corner, and for better local zoning and better regional planning. Where we want to see change, the Coalition for Smarter Growth is fighting for it.

Cheryl Cort is the policy director for the Coalition and the former head of the Washington Regional Network for Livable Communities. She leads CSG’s campaigns for equitable development and mandatory inclusionary zoning in D.C., as well as all policy work on transit-oriented development, complete streets and parking reform. As such, she is one of the region’s foremost experts on smart growth. As such, TheCityFix DC sat down with her to discuss the state of smart growth in the region and possibilities for the future.

Cort ended up focusing on three different levels where change was most needed. At the level of design, Cort called for a renewed focus on the first quarter-mile around our Metrorail stations as the primary locus for regional growth. Moving out to the level of policy, Cort identified form-based zoning codes, in which neighborhood type is regulated rather than building uses, as a particularly encouraging trend at the local level. In her words, “Form-based codes make sure that what is happening on private land supports what we are trying to do on public land.” Finally, at the broadest level, Cort argued that our constant ability to find large sums of cash for greenfield development and highway expansion while existing communities and transit are constantly starved for cash reflects wasteful and misguided priorities, reminding us that “We can’t build it all.”

An edited transcript of my interview with her below:

Noah Kazis: I want to start by asking how you define smart growth. It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot and can mean very different things to different people.

Cheryl Cort: Smart growth, I think, is directing growth, in terms of jobs and households, to existing communities focused around transit service and creating walkable, bikeable communities. As a part of that, smart growth means building mixed-use and mixed-income communities so that everyone has an opportunity to live in these convenient places. That’s the community side of smart growth. The other side is environmental protection: protecting open space, forests and farmland, and undeveloped areas.

NK: If you could redesign the D.C. area—with practicality as no limit—what would it look like?

CC: It means first focusing on building great walkable mixed-use, mixed-income communities around our Metrorail stations. Far too many of our Metro stations are either underdeveloped or have a poor mix of uses. Maybe they have the right mix of uses but create a very unwalkable environment. If we just focus growth on the half-mile walk, the quarter-mile walk to our Metro stations we could accommodate most of our region’s growth.

And then the second part is focusing on our existing communities inside the beltway and along our Metro corridors. We need to direct growth to the inner suburbs and city. That’s where something like the Purple Line comes in and a bus priority network comes in.

NK: Just to dig deeper on that question, how dense does the District get? What does a place like Bethesda start to look like? What does a place like Tyson’s Corner start to look like? Does it start to look like Portland? New York? Paris? Tokyo?

CC: It looks like D.C. and Bethesda. How we build out communities and mixed-use districts, it’s specific to the place that we’re in. But we want to focus more growth closer in to Metro stations and other high-capacity transit and build in a market for retail that can be served by walking and bicycling rather than longer-distance travel.

Different stations would have different characteristics. Some Metro stations would be more neighborhood scale, like Takoma for instance. You want to focus more housing and some businesses next to that Metro station, but you’d be transitioning into the surrounding lower-density housing. For other places, like say Prince George’s Plaza metro station, that’s a place that has pretty sizable amounts of new development in terms of apartment buildings, office buildings and commercial development. Prince George’s Plaza is on a larger scale and should be on a larger scale than a neighborhood station. Generally, though, there should be more happening within the quarter-mile of the station than in the surrounding area.

One of the clearest examples of that is how the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor was planned out by Arlington Country. They decided to run Metro through an old, dying, inner-suburban strip commercial corridor and bury the Metro line rather than keep it on cheap highway right-of-way. They simultaneously protected the surrounding low-density areas. So Rosslyn-Ballston has built out with the first key quarter-mile walk of each of those Metro stations focused more on density, but quickly tapering down into pretty low density neighborhoods.

NK: You talked a lot about design in that answer. How does design interact with policy on this?

CC: Well, that’s actually an interesting question. Rethinking our Euclidean zoning has emerged as a popular topic and the response has been form-based codes. By Euclidean zoning, I mean American land use zoning predicated on the need to separate uses, like separating the slaughterhouse from nearby residences. It certainly makes sense to separate noxious uses from where people are living, but the downside is that it separated everything from everything else. It made walking and cycling impractical modes of travel.

We’ve since realized that the built environment–what happens on private property–has a profound effect on our travel environment. So the role of public interest in what happens in private development isn’t just saying “here’s a setback line” and “we’re going to be very specific about what uses you can’t put in there.” In form-based codes, we say what we really care about, as the public, is making sure that the building supports the public realm. Although the use is relevant, we don’t need to get hyper-specific about it. We just need to make sure that we don’t put a tannery in the middle of a mixed-use district. We can then get more specific about how buildings behave in an environment. Rather than saying you just need to push back the building so many feet from the right-of-way, form-based codes say we might want to have a build-to line, so that commercial buildings are relating strongly to the street and creating a friendly environment for commerce and pedestrians, so there’s a sense of enclosure for the pedestrian, so they feel in contact with both the public realm and the buildings they might want to use. That’s in contrast to putting a parking lot in front of a building, where the pedestrian might feel very much lost in space. Form-based codes make sure that what is happening on private land supports what we are trying to do on public land.

NK: So where is form-based zoning happening, if anywhere?

CC: Arlington has done a very good job of this on the Columbia Pike. They have developed a form-based code for the road and have been building out in conformance with that plan. Prince George’s County has been working on some of those ideas for the last year or so. They are calling it the mixed-use zone.

What’s interesting is that many jurisdictions—Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and D.C.—all are in the midst of rewriting or updating their 1950’s zoning code. DC’s zoning code was first written in 1958 and this is the first time that the city has undertaken a major updating of that code. It’s been tinkered with along the way, but never fully rethought. The city is looking at these form-based approaches. It might be a little less specific about where you can have a telegraph office, for instance. One of the things that’s going to be eliminated from the code is archaic uses that no longer exist.

NK: You always read about Arlington as the place getting things right. Everywhere else it seems like it’s one step forward and one step back. They’re putting in transit but they’re also putting in a highway. Do you have any sense of what political process or logic leads to this total jumble?

CC: Arlington is just 25 square miles. That has a lot to do with its success. It’s an urban jurisdiction that didn’t feel like it had space to waste. It felt it had to do everything well, not just approve giant new projects as developers pitched them. I think that a lot of other jurisdictions suffer from thinking they have lots of land to do things with.

NK: You often hear people saying that no bus will ever spur development in the way that rail will. How do the different pieces of a transportation system fit together in your mind, particularly in a region that is becoming more and more multinodal, rather than just centered in D.C.?

CC: You have to look at applying the transportation technology to the land use. One technology is not suitable for all uses. For example, maybe enhanced bus service might not have the same impact on land use. But bus service is still essential to connecting existing communities. Not everyone lives within a five minute walk of the 100-odd Metro stations. It’s about investing in the right kind of transit.

NK: One critique I always have of smart growth advocates—and I’m horribly guilty of this whenever I wear my advocate hat—is that it’s portrayed as a free lunch. It saves money, it saves the environment, it lowers commute times, and on and on. What are the costs of smart growth? Even if it’s mostly winners, but who are the losers?

CC: I think we see the costs of sprawl and endless widenings of I-270 in terms of further dispersion of jobs and pollution the consumption of more land. Smart growth is the response to the way we are pouring our resources into driving through large-scale roads. It’s the response to the undermining and abandonment of existing communities. For example, in Capitol Heights and District Heights, Prince George’s County is currently closing 8 elementary schools, 7 of which are inside the beltway and the eighth is just over the Beltway. At the same time, it’s planning to build a bunch of new schools on greenfield sites outside the Beltway. That’s a great example of how we’re wasting resources to subsidize new freeway interchanges while abandoning older communities and homeowners. I see smart growth as the response to the problems of our current system.

NK: What do you see as the biggest obstacle to enacting smart growth policies?

CC: What’s striking is that with the spike in gas prices last year, we had a decline in VMT for the first time in decades. Now the recession is influencing how much people are driving as well. When people found it very expensive to drive, people were flocking to transit – everything from commuter buses to carpooling to regular buses. What would have been better for everyone is if those alternatives were better to start with. As a society, we are starting to run out of all of the natural resources and public subsidies that have spread out jobs and forced families to own two or three cars. The cost of energy is starting to make families ask for better choices.

The other thing is the demographic shift towards an older population. Folks need transportation choices that don’t involve driving for every trip. There’s demand for more urban style housing because there’s more choices of transportation options and you don’t need to do so much to take care of the house. So there’s energy trends and demographic trends driving us towards a smart growth future. And then climate change. People are deeply concerned about our climate and recognize that we need more environmentally friendly communities.

NK: In terms of the environmental movement, any environmental group gets tagged with the “elitist” smear. The Coalition for Smarter Growth cares a lot about equity. Why does your organization feel it’s important to include equity stuff when many environmental groups don’t do so, and why can’t you shake the elitist label?

CC: Smart growth is more than an environmental movement, although many of its roots are there. There are other strands as well, though, such as the New Urbanist movement. In terms of equity, one of the big challenges is that we have a deficit of these great places that have transit and walkability. You pay a premium to live in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. There aren’t enough of these places, so they cost more. If we don’t build more great places—until we build them—we’re going to have to work very hard to make them affordable so that people of all incomes have the ability to live there. Arlington has made a lot of efforts in that area, though they’ve had a lot of challenges being in the Commonwealth of Virginia, which is a very strong private property rights state. Now they require—they don’t require, but they strongly incentivize—development in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor to come in with affordable housing.

In D.C. we’ve seen a complete recovery of the housing market. In 1996, there was no new housing permit issued in the District of Columbia. Now things have really changed. In the last few years we were looking at 2,000 units a year being created. The District’s lost a tremendous amount of population over the years, so a lot of underutilized land and parking lots and vacant lots have been used to accommodate this growth, but it’s also put a lot of pressure on home prices and rents.

The City has a number of policies in place to protect low-income renters, like rent control and tenants first right of refusal when a building goes up for sale, but it’s a challenge to faithfully administer these programs. The District didn’t really have a cohesive housing policy, so the Coalition for Smarter Growth has been working with the D.C. Affordable Housing Alliance for nearly a decade on these issues. We worked on securing a housing production trust fund as a reliable source of funding, creating a comprehensive housing strategy, and increasing the amount of development on publicly owned land committed to affordable housing from a 20% set-aside to 30%.

The other thing is inclusionary zoning, which Montgomery County pioneered. Private developments are required to set aside a certain percentage of units at below-market rates in exchange for a density bonus. In D.C., our campaign kicked off in 2003 and we got it through the zoning commission, which was the key body, in 2006. The City Council signed off on it, but no regulations were issued between 2007 and 2009, when the mayor finally issued the last regulations. We now expect it to go into effect in August. It’s an important tool for integrating affordability into every development in the city. It’s existed for over 30 years in Montgomery County and in a less robust form in Fairfax, although Fairfax has been improving its law. A form of it was incorporated into the Tyson’s Corner redevelopment plan. We’ve been particularly involved with inclusionary zoning in the District because we are land use planners and we bring some expertise to the table on that particular technique.

NK: Just to close up, what is the one thing that absolutely no one in the region is talking about that they should be?

CC: We really need to rethink how we go about identifying billions of dollars in public funds for these giant roadway projects when we neglect to get the details right on transit and walkability. We can’t build it all.

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